With Heaven Knows What directors Josh and Benny Safdie have delivered something of a bracing modern masterpiece of addiction cinema. A collaborative effort with lead actress Arielle Holmes (who, during production, was homeless and addicted to heroin), the film was adapted from a 150 page self-authored recount of Holmes’ life as a junkie. By exploring this marginalized subculture through extensive consultation and collaboration, actively seeking their involvement in the project, the Safdie brothers have delivered a fascinating look into the lives of hardcore drug addicts that never feels paternalistic, nor alarmist. Rather, the duo present us with an accurately bleak portrait of the stark reality of life as a heroin addict, leaving us to draw our own conclusions from the tale, bringing to the project our own biases.1 It’s a difficult film, but an important one, and far more confronting and eye-opening than any Sunday special-esque heroin film could ever be – all while managing to never demonize or condone the behaviour of its participants.
Early in Heaven Knows What, we’re confronting by a very disturbing sequence in which Harley (Holmes) slits her wrists in a drug-addled attempt to prove to her boyfriend, Ilya (Jones), that she loves him. It’s an extremely difficult to stomach but through Sean Price Williams’ cinematography (which is at its grittiest during these moments), the scene feels both shocking and somehow restrained; this is one of the strongest, most accomplished and memorable openings of any film from the past decade and will act as a litmus test to determine whether its audience will be able to complete the depressing trudge through the rest of the film. From here, the titlecard and opening credits roll over a pumping, synth-heavy track (taken from the Debussy covers of Isao Tomita), with Holmes fighting with other psych-ward patients at the hospital she is rushed to in a subtle long-take. The bleak tone of these opening moments permeates the rest of the film, one that sees Harley and co. go about their lives, begging, borrowing, and stealing to get their fix, engaging in drugged out shouting matches and sleazy, night-time park meetings with each other.
While the level of consultation with this marginalized New York community alone makes the film meritable, perhaps the film’s most fascinating feature are the intricate performances from Holmes and her (also drug-addicted and often homeless) friends as dramatized versions of themselves – in fact, the only professional cast member is Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Holmes’s boyfriend, as the real Ilya (who tragically passed away after the film’s completion) was deemed too emotionally unstable to contribute to the project.2 As a result of these casting decisions, the film feels deeply personal and shockingly accurate, an important work in a genre so dominated by judgmental offerings.3
Although Heaven Knows What is confronting, its roots in realism allow the film to also act as a fascinating ethnography (albeit a somewhat dramatized one) of some of the ‘first world’s’ most marginalized people; the meticulous attention to detail offered by the Safdie’s suggesting that the tale of urban addiction is probably an accurate one in spite of Sean Price Williams somewhat distant, almost acutely calculated yet beautiful cinematography. In many exterior shots, Williams expertly places us as an outsider, an awkward onlooker discretely peering into the public outbursts of this particular subgroup of people. At other times there is a sort of objective coldness to his camera-work, documenting the scattered moments that compose Harley’s life. Much of the films strength, in fact, lies in this masterful cinematography from this repeated Safdie collaborator,4 that adds an undercurrent of natural beauty to the stories of these people afflicted by an unnatural, inorganic substance, shirking the misconception that films which deal with dark and gritty content need to be shot in a rough, edgy way.
On a narrative level, the film does have some more traditional roots. Heaven Knows What feigns conformity to a ‘love conquers all’ narrative, undercutting this message through the disparate nature of interconnected moments at play here, all of which hold little weight for the characters, who float from conflict to conflict in a drugged out haze. Love is something tangible that Harley can hold onto, a feeling that has been culturally romanticised that she can mentally hold onto to feign normality and continue to ignore the brevity and consequence of her addiction. While there is a clear “love” narrative at play here with a definite payoff, the overwhelming strength of the film lies mainly in its tone and performances.
It’s not just in the performances that this legitimacy is created however. The exploration of the black metal scene that the film offers, for example, is totally accurate, and not at all something that you would find in a potentially alarmist drug-scare film. The black metal scene is no stranger to heroin use, rooting itself around death, decay, and the valueless nature of human life. While the Safdie’s film isn’t the first to tackle the somewhat interconnected areas of black metal and heroin – that honor would probably have to go to the infamous Lucifer Valentine’s Black Metal Veins, a (likely very dramatized but extremely uncomfortable and confronting) documentary about four strung out black metal musicians as they race towards death – they do so without the overt sensationalism that this prior venture carries.5 It’s another example of the ways in which the Safdies haven’t attempted to place their broad array of heroin-addicted characters into a single box, Ilya an example of a specific sub-group of user, while others have developed an addiction through other means.
While Heaven Knows What is by no means easy to stomach, it is an extremely interesting and impressive film which has potential as an important tool to refocus a tired debate about the war on drugs. There’s a lot to relate to here about the process of addiction (whether it be addiction to drugs, love, abuse or something much less harmful) that also elevates the film far beyond a simple tale of heroin dependence, and elevates it to a level of understated masterpiece. The Safdies are clearly two very talented individuals, and Arielle Holmes has demonstrated herself to be a talented storyteller and a strong performer in her own right. It’s doubtful that it will be too long before we see something amazing from the Safdies or Holmes herself again; this film clearly cements them as ones to watch.
Across the Staff: